Antony and Cleopatra

Antony and Cleopatra Themes

Fate, Destiny, Inevitability, or Historical Necessity

In Antony and Cleopatra, the chain of events is made to seem more predetermined than in most of Shakespeare's plays. Although many of the plays use expectation and prophecy and fulfillment, every event in this play is foreshadowed either by soothsayers or savvy observers like Enobarbus. Historical necessity, which would have one man alone rule Rome, seems to conspire to send Antony and Octavius head to head. And from the beginning, even someone with no prior knowledge of the story sees clearly that Octavius will win. Personal agency seems limited, and the suicides of the lovers near the end seem to be a final act of self-assertion, the only possible act left to them, in the face of historical necessity.

Shakespeare is dealing with history, so he can make events seem fated, but the Soothsayer and his dire predictions are taken from Plutarch. The use of the soothsayer underscores the theme of destiny, which in a play based on historical events can be viewed in different ways. To us, the defeat of Antony is inevitable, fated, because it has already happened. The soothsayer's presence adds a sinister inevitability to a historical event playing out before us. Historical forces become conflated with less rational conceptions of destiny and fate. Because of the soothsayer's presence, history itself takes on a supernatural element, being beyond the control or explanation of men.

Fate has a destructive side

For one man to rule, others must fall. For Rome to unify the world, war and the destruction of old orders are necessary.

Rome versus Egypt

Shakespeare constantly juxtaposes the world of Egypt with the world of Rome. The leaps in space are greater here then in any Shakespearean play: we move from Egypt to Rome to Athens to other parts of the world in a matter of moments. Shakespeare uses Rome and Egypt to deal with a number of themes, organized in terms of oppositions: change versus the status quo, martial values versus self-indulgence, masculine authority versus feminine authority, the values of an erstwhile Republic versus the values of despotism.

These binaries reflect not just qualities inherent in the two places, but the changes that come upon Antony depending on which place he is in. Antony, in some ways, is one man in Egypt and a different one in Rome. Egypt is an exotic frontier, a welcome escape from a life of soldiership and civic duty. In Egypt, Antony rules basically as a king, the kind of king known better for his self-indulgence than his administrative abilities. Parallels can be drawn to other places throughout history: many men, away from home serving the interests of empire, have created lives of decadent pleasure. From Romans in Egypt to debauched Frenchmen in Indochina, imperial frontiers have provided men with escape and luxury, and a freedom that could never be possible for them in their homelands. Antony is torn between duty and passion, soldiership and self-indulgence, political ambition and love of life for it's sensual pleasures. Antony seems to delight in Egypt as an escape from his Roman self. In the East, Antony is able to indulge impulses that Romans disdain, even if these impulses fascinate them.

Duty and Honor

Antony is never able to reconcile his Roman duty with his human passions. Rome is a land that prizes duty very highly. His love for Cleopatra completely undoes his character as a soldier. When he fails at Actium to live up to his duty to his men, part of him dies.

For Romans, honor and duty are closely linked. The Roman definition of honor is a highly masculine one, with very different standards for men and women. Much less is expected of Cleopatra than of Antony.

Different characters are motivated or restrained by their definition of honor at different points in the play. Enobarbus, Antony, Pompey, Cleopatra, and Octavius are characters to watch for different takes on the meaning of honor. Enobarbus sees honor as loyalty between friends, and his failure to live up to that precept leads to his death from grief. Antony sees too late that his honor as a Roman is tied to duty, and tries to salvage his honor through his valor as a warrior. Pompey prizes his honor highly enough to sacrifice ultimate power for principle. Octavius dispenses with loyalty, and works from a definition of honor closely tied to ambition. His duty is to destiny itself. Cleopatra has no understanding of Roman conceptions of honor, and is often baffled by Antony as he becomes unhinged, being unable to understand the principles he has failed to uphold. But she has her own idea of honor, one centered on the glamour and individuality of her own persona. This kind of honor, centered on herself, means she will not allow Caesar to parade her through Rome as a trophy.

Other thematic divides represented by Rome and Egypt

Dynamic Change versus Static Order:

This binary is closely tied to the theme of fate and historical necessity, which has its destructive and transformational side. Egypt is a static world, ruled by the same family for centuries. This relative stability stands in sharp contrast to Rome, where the structures of power are constantly changing, and different generals hold sway at different times. Rome is in a period of great flux, as the Republic has ended and the new period of Empire is about to begin. The dynamic character of Rome turns Rome itself into a metaphor for change. The scenes in Egypt show a relatively peaceful status quo, while from the beginning the scenes in Rome are full of great changes with consequences for the whole Mediterranean world. Towards the end of the play, when Egypt is invaded, Rome's presence means that Egypt is infected by the destructive and creative powers of change. Old orders will fall, a new one will be built, and Egypt will be left forever altered. The reign of pharaohs, which has continued in Egypt under different dynasties for over three thousand years.

Masculine order versus feminine order

The court of Cleopatra is woman-centered. Rome is a very masculine world. Rome is obsessed with duty and militaristic virtues, and anxiety about being dominated by women is rampant. Alexandria is a world of pleasure, where the female sovereign's rule is uncontested. While the Romans express disgust with Cleopatra's hold on Antony, and eagerly dismiss her as a manipulative whore, their fascination with her is obvious. When Antony and his men return to Rome, many of the Roman soldiers are hungry for tales of Egypt's wonders, the greatest wonder of all being Cleopatra.

Virtues of a Republic versus despotism

Rome is a former Republic with a tradition of citizenship. Egypt is a land of sovereign and subject. Enobarbus is subordinate to Antony, but both are Romans, and Enobarbus is allowed to speak his mind. Antony encourages messengers to speak freely to him. In the same situation, Cleopatra has no qualms about beating the bearer of bad news. A Roman leader must cater to the mob; Cleopatra appears to her people dressed as a goddess, and has no need to curry their favor.